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Beowulf , Grendel, and Intertextuality:. reading an Anglo-Saxon epic through a postmodern novel. Beowulf. Anglo-Saxon epic oral components Transcribed (or composed) by a monk Verse qualities kennings alliteration caesura Structure two part three part Digressions (interlace).

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beowulf grendel and intertextuality

Beowulf, Grendel, and Intertextuality:

reading an Anglo-Saxon epic through a postmodern novel

  • Anglo-Saxon epic
    • oral components
    • Transcribed (or composed) by a monk
  • Verse qualities
    • kennings
    • alliteration
    • caesura
  • Structure
    • two part
    • three part
    • Digressions (interlace)

Reconstructed 7th century helmut, Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, England. Now in British Museum.

anglo saxon culture
Anglo-Saxon Culture
  • Warrior Culture
    • comitatus
    • thane
    • wergeld
    • scop
    • FATE (weird)
  • Christianity
    • direct references to Hebrew stories
    • indirect allusions to Christian narrative
    • PROVIDENCE (God)

7th C. Shield, reconstructed from objects found at Sutton Hoo. Now in British Museum.

issues or tensions
Violence and Revenge (loyalty run amok)

Sapience vs. Fortitude

Celebration of courage, mourning of cultural loss

Exchange of wealth, traffic in women

Relationship between creation and destruction

Issues or tensions

Gold and enamel belt buckle found at Sutton Hoo. Now in British Museum.

understanding genre
Understanding Genre
  • Definition – not a static system of literary types but a dynamic, flexible set of features that aid the processes of creation and interpretation of literature
  • Distinctions
    • Genre (drama, narrative, lyric)
    • Subgenre (epic, novel; primary epic, secondary epic)
    • Mixed genre
  • Mode - qualities of a genre that can be carried into other settings (i.e., epic scale/themes in Star Wars)
    • Conventions
    • Level of diction, tone
    • Expected content
      • Typical characters/plots
      • Range of themes or topics (topoi)

[see Alistair Fowler, Types of Literature]



Epic, like myth and legend, develops to help a culture solidify its sense of identity

How do we define the group? [Who’s in, who’s out? What stories define our history?]

How should we behave toward each other?

[What are our obligations to one another? What qualities should men and women posses? -- how do we define virtue?]

Are there powers beyond our own, and, if so, how do we relate to them?

  • Art works.
    • Late twentieth-century interpretations of literature focus on how it (the work of art) functions within society. According to these approaches, genres have purposes and emerge/adapt to meet needs in society.
  • Authors work within limitations
    • Of language
    • Of culture
    • Of memes

meme -- wikipedia

epic conventions based on study of classical greco latin texts
Epic Conventions based on study of classical Greco-Latin texts

Epic question

Epic similes [kennings]

Catalogs [absent]

Formal speeches

Set pieces [battles, banquets, inserted songs]

Epithets [kennings]

Trip to underworld– katabasis

Homecoming -- nostos

Objective, narrative voice

  • Hero of elevated stature, national or international importance
  • Unified action
  • Involvement of gods
  • in medias res [ab ovo]
  • Elevated style
  • Vast setting
  • Invocation to muse [absent]
part i slaying of grendel
Part I: Slaying of Grendel


The Problem

48-169 Hrothgar’s mead hall heorot arouses Grendel’s envy

Legal constraints (l. 66)

Foreboding tone (l. 75ff)

Caedmon’s (79-90)—pp. 116, 117 in our text, Bede’s History

Grendel’s arrival – spawn of Cain; but compare lines 108-110 with 8-11

Ironic understatement – 122ff

Christian interpolation – 156ff

  • 1-48 Scyld Scefing
    • Isolation/consolation
    • Civics lesson
    • Guard/ward
    • Ship burial & Sutton Hoo
    • Current Archeology -- Sutton Hoo
part i cont
Part I, cont.

Beowulf’s arrival – courtesies among warriors

  • Departure and journey (170-190)
  • Arrival and greeting of coastguard 191-285
  • News announced to Hrothgar 286-364
  • Beowulf’s first beot 365-405
  • Hrothgar’s response 406-437
  • Unferth’s response (Breca) 438-544
  • Wealtheow’s appearance (546-578)
  • Don’t let the bedbugs bite 594-629
part i cont battle and victory
Part I, cont. Battle and Victory

The monster’s defeat

  • Girt with God’s anger
  • Cruel laughter
  • Grappling with Beowulf
  • Singing despair
  • Shielder of men cleanses Heorot
  • Lay of Sigemund
  • Magnificat
  • Unferth’s silence
part ii grendel s mother
Part II: Grendel’s Mother
  • Opening passage: physical cleansing and moral warning leaves small opening for free will
  • Treason and treachery
  • Celebration or mourning?
    • Lay of the Finnsburg
    • Wealtheow’s worries
  • An awful reversal
  • The border-dwellers
  • Aeschere is dead: trophy displayed
  • Beowulf’s katabasis and battle
  • Hrothgar’s sermon
  • Beowulf’s nostos
An illustration –

“What’s your field, Mr. McGarrigle?”

“Well, I did my research on Shakespeare and

T. S. Eliot,” said Persse.

“I could have helped you with that,” Dempsey

butted in. . . . “It would just lend itself nicely to

computerization. . . . All you’d have to do would

be to put the texts on to tape and you could get

the computer to list every word, phrase and

syntactitcal construction that the two writers

had in common. You could precisely quantify

the influence of Shakespeare on T. S. Eliot.”

“But my thesis isn’t about that,” said

Persse. “It’s about the influence of T. S. Eliot

on Shakespeare.”

--David Lodge, Small World

A definition –

“a textual strategy which invites, and directs, a double-focused response or ‘interreading’”

“a poetics of relational writing that demands a strategy of relational reading”

A methodology lying somewhere between source studies and cultural semiotics

“the pervasive method by which twentieth century writing articulates its sense of history, its awareness of its dependence on an infinity of texts déjà lus, at the same time as it declares its conditional, ironic, independence”

a style of writing on a “tightrope between ‘exhaustion’ and ‘replenishment”

-- Andreas Höfele, “Twentieth-Century Intertextuality

and the Reading of Shakespeare’s Sources”

grendel reading beowulf
Grendel reading Beowulf
  • Sites of intertextuality in our reading:
    • Beowulf’s story and the lays about previous Danes, Geats, or Finns
    • Beowulf and Rood/Caedmon/Genesis/Gospels
    • Grendel and Beowulf
    • Grendel and King Lear, The Wasteland
  • walking a “tightrope between ‘exhaustion’ and ‘replenishment”
interlacing design

Shield Sheafson’s ship burial

Hrothgar builds Heorot

Grendel begins attacks

Grendel as descendent of Cain

Beowulf arrives

Breca digression

Beowulf defeats Grendel

Sigemund slays dragon, is replaced by Heremond

Hrothgar rewards Beowulf

Lay of the Finnsburg


Underscores the transitory nature of success; foreshadows ending

Dual versions of Breca contest emphasize need for interpretation; associate matter of Cain with betrayal of kin

Sapience and strength: or is it cunning? What price glory?

What is a good king? Forshadows ending

Foreshadows Heorot’s second decline, which occurs outside the narrative but is known to the original audience.

Interlacing Design
interlacing design1
Interlacing Design
  • Beowulf’s story is interrupted by numerous digressions. Each plays a role in foreshadowing the action of the epic or developing its philosophic tone.
  • Poetic features reinforce the interlacing design as alliteration ties two halves of the line (separated by the caesura) together.

--Style recapitulates structure

beowulf and rood caedmon bible
  • “Dream of the Rood” and “original sin”
    • Cain and murder
    • Adam and forbidden knowledge
  • Creation
    • direct quotation of familiar poem
    • reinforces concept/role of scop
  • “Old” vs. “New” Testaments
    • direct allusions to Cain
    • indirect allusions to Mary, Beowulf as Christ figure
    • begins with genealogy
interlacing design grendel and beowulf
Grendel as epic

in medias res

epic similes – or, at least, lots of similes

low language, bathos

epic theme: pain/stupidity of “my idiotic war”


Dialectic structure

nihilistic, pattern-makers

victim of prejudice, scape-goat Christ-figure

Beowulf as epic

ab ovo

kennings, alliteration, litotes

epic tone

epic theme: hero as center of national identity


Cyclic structure

elegaic tone: celebration/loss

Pre-christian, heroic sacrifice

Interlacing design:Grendel and Beowulf
interlacing design grendel king lear and wasteland
Examples from Chapters 1-4

zodiac – April is the cruelest month [Ch. 1; Eliot]

“elderly, slow-witted king” [5; Lear]

“the grasses peek up . . . the children of the dead” [7; Eliot]

“if he had sons, they wouldn’t hear his words. They would weigh his silver and his gold in their minds.” [53; Lear]

nihil ex nihilo [Lear, Augustine]

Resulting Significance

cycle of violence, tone of Wasteland

chronic problem of succession in Beowulf

cycle still present in Europe—WWI, cold war, Balkans

universalizes generation gap

emphasizes theme of creation, (poetry), nihilism(violence)

Interlacing design:Grendel, King Lear, and Wasteland
grendel and beowulf
Grendel and Beowulf

Defend endings of Beowulf and Grendel

Criteria: appropriateness to content, structure, genre,

purpose of author, means of production

Contrast narrative voices of Beowulf, Grendel, Dream of Rood

Debate: Mor(t)ality and Heroism

Introduce elements and themes of medieval romance

(chivalry, courtly love, honor/shame,


something will come of all this the things we haven t talked enough about
In Beowulf

Beowulf and Unferth’s relationship after the slaying of Grendel

Beowulf’s honor and loyalty when he returns home [2165 ff, 2367 ff

The theme of the last survivor – ubi sunt – [2235 ff, Wiglaf 2813

Dragon as dignified, worthy opponent [2270 ff.]

In Grendel

Unferth’s brand of heroism; Grendel’s relationship to him

[Grendel : Unferth 

_______ : Grendel]

Wealtheow: beauty married to dignity and goodness. Why does Grendel have to rob her of dignity? Is her heroism of a lesser degree or different kind than male heroism? How does she relate to Grendel’s mother?

“quality of life”

Something will come of all this . . .The things we haven’t talked enough about:
nihil ex nihilo doesn t mean that something can t come from something else
Beowulf becomes self-reflective [2325 ff]

Eloquent expressions of grief and mourning [revision of the Cain narrative, 2435 ff; Beowulf’s death,

Bargain metaphor: life for hoard (?) or weirgild [2415, 2799, 2843

What is a man worth?

[2600, 2635, 2651

Scorpio, Hrothulf, anarchism, state monopoly on violence—119, kindness 120, indignity 122

Sagitarius, rumors of angels 133 Things fade, alternatives exclude, nothing is lost

The shaper is sick; it is the business of goats to climb 139, 132

courtly love affair – nothing came of it (?) 144

we’re on our own again 146, 149

Nihil ex nihilo doesn’t mean that something can’t come from something else . . .
but what why what you will
The hoard

Beowulf’s comfort 2750, 2799,

but ineffective 3015

Expecting the worst

2884, 2999, 3150

Tone: elegaic, praising the passing vir-tues of a lost, heroic age

Strangers have come – by water – beware the fish – walking dead men – like trees

Sing of walls 171

voluntary tumble, death-grip, accident

Alternatives exclude: choice or synthesis?


But what?Why, what you will . . .
grendel reading beowulf the big questions
Grendel reading Beowulf:the big questions

Can the arts make a difference?

What of mor(t)ality?

Do we murder each other

more gently

because in the woods

sweet songbirds sing?